2011: When Chinese Social Media Found Its Legs

By Damien Ma

A charm offensive from the U.S. ambassador and a few fumbles from the Chinese government were amplified this year through the growing power of microblogging

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U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke, second left, shakes hands with bystanders outside Shuibu kindergarten in Taishan, Guangdong province, southern China. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Authoritarian regimes' days were supposed to be numbered in a web 2.0 world. Indeed, it has long been hypothesized that the proliferation of communication technology would lead to the demise of illiberal and strong-handed autocrats. It seemed impossible for any cabal of powerbrokers to remain immune to a public fitted with new tools of protest and collective action. The instantaneity and velocity of truths, pictures, and videos speeding across vast transnational networks made life very difficult for governments not accustomed to responding to the demands of the people. This year, it seemed that the cyber and technology utopians were proved prescient. 


In the fertile crescent, a war concluded just as a revolution spread, toppling regimes more effectively in several months than the bloody and misplaced military adventure that lasted nearly a decade. From London to Athens, discontent sprung from unnecessary brutality and necessary austerity. From DC to San Francisco, occupiers and 99 percenters became disillusioned by how all men may be created equal, but grow into inequality. In Moscow, a popular indictment on crony capitalism proved that Putin's seeming invincibility is a canard. A unifying force is present in these uprisings and protests: the penetration of social media. Yet in China, apart from the current "contained" protests in Wukan, the state appears to be the exception to the political paroxysms afflicting numerous corners of the globe. 

But it would be a mistake to believe that the Chinese government is not shaken by the unpredictable anti-incumbent contagion that has infected regions as diverse as Tunisia and the United States. Although the Chinese political establishment remains intact, it is facing popular pressures unprecedented in the regime's recent history, precisely because of the rapid adoption of new media that undermine its traditional information monopoly. In fact, 2011 was arguably the year in which the Chinese Twitterati found a voice and flashed its teeth, not to overtly challenge the state's legitimacy, but to hold it more accountable than it prefers. In the absence of a robust legal system, the government is now being forced to answer itself in the court of public opinion. 

Several issues stand out for me in the past year:

1. The high-speed rail crash: It became a sensation in the Chinese microblog universe, triggering a tsunami of criticism at government handling of the incident and the larger issue of crony capitalism that is all too common in today's China. The episode prompted the government to undertake a comprehensive safety evaluation, sack the rail minister, and pledge more transparency.  

2. The controversy over air quality measurements: The horrendous pollution in Beijing in recent months lit up on Sina Weibo, the Chinese microblog, where many inveighed against a government withholding crucial air-quality information from its citizens. The story even contained a minor wrinkle in U.S.-China relations. As the U.S. embassy's own twitter feed tracked the PM2.5 pollution particle, it earned the trust of the Chinese public, embarrassing a Chinese government that tried, but failed, to convince the public that it is yet another American ploy to destabilize China. Under intense pressure, officials had to concede that it must make more information public.  

3. Gary Locke's unintended charm offensive: A rock star before he even boarded a plane for Beijing, Ambassador Locke became an overnight celebrity among the Chinese Twitterati. Photos of him purchasing Starbucks coffee with a coupon and carrying his own luggage drew wide approval among the Chinese public. As I have noted, trumpeting an US official's "average-ness" is a reflection of the Chinese public's own displeasure at the braggadocio, elitist attitude, and unchecked authority of its own officials.

Just as it is apparently en vogue these days to use "China" as a mirror for our own considerable dysfunctions (I'm looking at you Tom Friedman), we often forget that the Chinese public, too, deploys "America" as an instrument to reflect on their own shortcomings. And in each of the above cases, the unspoken but obvious deficiency is that the Chinese regime is facing a growing credibility gap in governance, in large part because it can no longer construct a singular reality, for it is being coopted by individuals weibo-ing, blogging, and YouKu-ing. At its most elemental, it is evolving into a contestation of truth between the state and society.    

So far, the power of social media in China primarily resides in its seeming capacity to hold the government accountable, incrementally influencing its behavior. It has not been a regime-wide destabilizing force, not least because the state has overwhelming capacity to control the system. At the same time, however, social media has a disproportionate impact in the Chinese context because it is perceived as one of the only unfiltered channels of information. Its exponential growth clearly unnerves the Chinese government, which is already taking action by requiring real name registration on weibo. Yet weibo is almost "too big to fail"—shutting it down would exact too high of a cost. To give a sense of the size of the internet and social media penetration, I found this series from "We are Social" mind-boggling (h/t to China Hush): 

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Scale matters. These numbers are dizzyingly large, and they certainly look frightening to the Chinese government. To be sure, the regime has been particularly adept at preventing sparks from setting the prairie on fire. The Great Firewall was supposed to be the all-enveloping fire-proof net, though it was never without leaks. And can it contain 350 million+ sparks, or how about half a billion? The key question, then, is whether the Communist Party, wading into the uncharted waters of controlling social media, double down on its current approach of ham-fisted repression or adapt to the inevitable reality by becoming more open and publicly accountable. 

To that question we anxiously await the answers. And so are the villagers in Wukan.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/12/2011-when-chinese-social-media-found-its-legs/250083/